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Tuesday, 5 June 2018

A day in Sarandë, Albania - 'Faleminderit'

Democracy Place in Saranda, Albania

I shall view the town of Saranda as less distant, less foreign, having just been there for the day. Lin and I passed through there once before - during a guided tour to Butrint. We were a lightly shepherded group; an unpatronising guide, coaches, laid on food and drink; an enjoyable and fascinating day to visit this old Roman resort – reward for favoured veterans of the empire. This time, in the afternoon before my trip, I bought a return ticket for €33 from Katerina at Sarris Lines in a corner office on a small road leading out of Mandouki onto Xenophoros Stratigou.
The next morning I was waiting before 9.00am in a cheerful crowd of mainly ‘all-inclusives’ by the doors of the Corfu New Harbour Customs House, my cycle folded, my bag provided with folded jacket, passport and money
“They will take euro’s. Ask for change in euros”.
Arriving at Sarandë on a ferry from Corfu

At the dock in Saranda, I and two others are beckoned by an immigration officer away from other passengers heading towards coaches, their paperwork pre-handled. I’d heard one officer on the quay shout to a waiting colleague that we were ‘from kerkyra’, which sorted me out. Passport swiftly inspected, I was directed through a pristine office with a mirrored lift to take me and my bike up to the street - Rruga Mitat Hoxha.
Close to at last, I missed a sense of direction. Our previous guided visit had spared thinking on the arrangement of places. I wheeled to the modest church just over the road that Father Militiades had told me about.
“It is just where you come out from the harbour”.
Kisha Ungilore Evangelical Church of Saranda

It was closed. I would have visited to see a copy of an Albanian Holy Bible that Father Militiades (our friend at the Lighthouse in Kontokali) had a part in getting translated and spread at the end of the Communist era, so some old people without communion for over 70 years, he told me, could take bread and wine from a priest.
As I do on a bicycle, I sought higher ground, walking up a steepish street I left the city’s more polished frontage. I was soon cycling on a level road between modernist tower blocks – Saranda’s principal architecture. The feeling of freedom was almost palpable. This street was one-way. On a bicycle with little traffic I edged where I wanted. The towers were not, as is often the modernist scheme, in rows, but, probably in line with the rising form of their hard stone footings, placed where foundations best fitted the curve of the hill on which the town is built, and still rising.
No tourist guide on places to see in Saranda points to where I was cycling on a smooth road with frequent speed bumps, winding between pavements dotted with small trees.
The internet, as I read it, tells us of places outside the city, with passing reference to tenuous classical ruins inside. I’d like to know the story of the city as it developed from the 1950s through to the end of the reign of Enver Hoxha, when Saranda in Albania and Cassiopi on Corfu faced across the last vestiges of the post-war iron curtain, and people died at the hands of their own people, shot swimming the straits, as East Germans died trying to clamber through the wires and over the concrete of the Berlin Wall.
I roamed between small fruit and veg shops gathering a picnic. From a bakery I bought a poppy seed baguette, cut in half to fit my bag. I tried to recall the Albanian for ‘thank you’ but despite courteous tutoring I forgot it again at the next shop.

Under shade in the foyers of tower blocks were people having soft drinks and coffees. The alphabet of signs was all Latin – momentarily exotic when I’m so used to Greek signs. Change for my Euros was given in Leks. The sums were so small, it seemed ungracious, since they welcomed my foreign money, to ask shopkeepers to return me change in Euros. I bought a dried sausage, a bottle of chilled Tirana Beer and a chunk of feta picked from a floating pool in a freezer and cut to my choice with the help of sign language, wrapped in nearly grease proof paper.
I cycled further towards the northern skirts and came to a cemetery, graves strewn in terraces across the back of a hill above the sea. Besides and opposite the cemetery wall were flower shops – stocked with brightly coloured artificial bouquets. In the distance on an elevation was a mosque with minaret. I had not lost height, and as is the delightful way with cycling where pain, in the end, brings gain, I continued up a new minted road that turned back towards the town, tarmac glistening and smelly.

Between and beyond the widening panorama of tower blocks was the sparkling blue sea, the coast winding down to the Greek border, and, over the way, in haze, Corfu and the coned summit of Pantokrator from which I’ve often gazed down on Saranda’s clustered blocks.
Mount Pantokrator from Saranda. My view is usually the other way around

My new road joined a grander carriageway with a smooth surface on which I coasted gently back into what I could now recognise as the centre of town. There was little other traffic and what there was did not hurtle by in the way that can worry me on a bicycle.

The city is climbing upwards. From afar you can see the form of new access roads for new building carving up toward the city’s scrubby ridge.
As I descended streets became more inhabited, even in the heat of the early afternoon. There were coffee shops, fast-food places, people, cars, scooters, even bicycles, but none of the exotic clothes I see daily in Birmingham. I was searching for a bus station. There isn’t one. Travellers are offered various bus stops and perhaps an office like the one on Rruga Onhezmi – a street crossing my gentle descent. There I could buy a ticket to Tirana – the right stop “just over there” on Rruga Vangjel Andi.
“You buy your ticket here”

Tickets for Tiranë from here

“And how for Durrës, Vlorë, Gjirokastër (birthplace of Enver Hoxha, and the great writer Ismael Kadari of Broken April whose peace with the dictator is sometimes queried but probably produced the artist's most subversive work) and Himara?”
“Buy your ticket on the bus”
Now feeling hungry I strolled a few yards from where Rruga Onhezmi crossed Rruga Vangjel Andi where I entered a square grassed space full of trees, paths, a shallow pool, shrubs, flowers and wooden benches - Parku Miqësia.

I laid out my picnic on a empty shaded bench, applied my bottle opener to the cold lager and cut a slice of beef tomato, bread and a piece of astringent feta. The cheese and tomato combined in my mouth, followed by a bite of bread, a slice of sausage and a swig of lager.  I repeated this combination. Birds sang, and across the park, small children with cries of delight and occasional shrieks, played on swings and roundabouts to familiar cautions from parents. There was an amplified call to prayer, on a pleasant pitch, from a mosque near the park. Later I heard a church bell ringing on one note. I finished my picnic with an orange, juicy but not as sweet as in Corfu. Bottle and peel went in a convenient litter bin.
Leaving the park I came upon a pavement shoe cleaner whose invitation I didn’t ignore. I sat and placed my feet on a stand as he ran his duster over my brogues. He picked up a small bottle of black polish, and poured it into a small container which spilled onto the pavement. He opened a bottle of water to clean it up, which sent a black delta of liquid polish over the rest of the pavement. His companion lounging on the low park wall was holding his hand to his mouth, snickering. With great care the shoe polisher applied black polish to the edge of the soles of my shoes, leaving a rough plimsoll line along the light brown leather.
“Ah!” I thought “an authentic Albanian way of polishing shoes”.
After a few seconds I saw that he had no brown polish. His companion’s suppressed sniggering continued. The polisher made a few more lavishly futile strokes on both my shoes with his rag, and clapped his hands
“Voilà, mister!”
“Your name?” I asked
I held out what was now a medley of small change from Corfu and Saranda and let him take his pick. 100 leks and – after hesitation – 2 euros; this sum, the cost of my entertainment, which the polisher’s mate had gratis.
Well eaten, I headed in the heat of the afternoon to the road that passes the Customs House, Mitat Hoxha, running just above the sea behind a series of new hotels. I’d heard gossip that these are financed from money of uncertain provenance around Cassiopi, opposite Saranda, 7 nautical miles away on Corfu. These hotels encroach on what was once a more public shoreline from which people from the town behind could go to enjoy the seaside via dirt roads leading to the beach. I wheeled my bicycle down a finely abraded concrete drive between two smart hotels to a beach where families and couples were splashing in the sea or lying under sunshades beside new laid decking.

These were no more hotel guests than I. A limpid sea, before a warm north west wind, sloshed and surged small waves against white pebbles. I put my specs and hat on the wood beside my bicycle, and stumbled into the inviting water in shoes and the rest of my clothes. Frolicking in the sea, I slid under, tasting salt, floating and swimming in and out of my depth.
Where I swam - facing Corfu

Ashore and cycling again, wind and sun dried my clothes in the hour. On Rruga Jonianët – a short walk from the arrival quay - I identified a bus stop for return journeys via Ksamil to Butrint – every hour on the half hour; an hour’s ride to Butrint.
Further along the same road, paralleling the seafront, is a discrete market, shaded stalls stretching inward from the street. Here I bought some honey, with a comb in the same jar, and a melon with its stalk attached - a present for John and Karen to whom I’d been complaining about irradiated melons that never ripen. They’d already brought me one to try from a stall on the road by Dassia.
By the harbour 

At the Customs House in Sarandë

At 17.00 (18.00 Albanian time) I passed simply through immigration and boarded my ferry. Shepherded passengers arrived in an organised rush and we were on our way back, skirting the Albanian coast, threading the narrows opposite Agni, crossing the wide bay off mid-Corfu to Vido and the new harbour where we crowded in an easy queue for Greek immigration. Katerina from Sarris Lines saw me standing by my bike and ushered me to the passport desk seeing me through without a glance
“You need to catch a bus, Mr Simon” she said, audible enough to save my embarrassment at the queue-jump.
“I could give you a lift to Dassia”
“That’s so kind, but the 20.30 Green Bus will get higher up to the village. Thanks so much, Katerina. I will buy my next ticket from you”
I cycled through town to the Green Bus terminal with 20 minutes wait for the last bus towards Sidari.
Sat up front on the bus to Sidari

It was Saturday evening. Among the passengers were young women dressed for parties and dancing. It pleased me that the infamous male gaze was kept in respectful check, these girls free to enjoy their spaces on the bus, absorbed in happy chat, my libidinous drifting diverted by a love affair of forty years. As requested I was dropped off at the junction of the Sidari Road with the 2 kilometre road to the village. I cycled and walked in the cooler evening, pinging my bell as I freewheeled down Democracy Street to join friends sitting outside Piatsa.
*** ***
Now the summer heat of Greece begins to require the preparatory caution required for winter’s arrival in England. Where I would be remembering to close doors, muffle chills that may enter and keep warmth that may escape, here I guard against heat – pulling in shutters to separate sun from the hope of breeze, opening windows so curtains can stir, prizing shade; walking charily in light clothes, prudent with exertion, careful when gripping metal railing or crossing scorching plaka in bare feet. What pleasure when the village, placed between slower cooling sea and faster heating mountains, is visited by one of Corfu’s local katabatic tempests, squalling like an express train along the village frontage, slamming untended doors and casements, gusting through shaded rooms, flinging up curtains, stirring loose papers.
Before cycling I apply sun cream to face, arms and neck. There’s a slope on the way into Skripero that requires work to ascend. It’s unshaded, with heat from above and off the tarmac. Sweat starts at my temples and seeps into my eyes – salty, stinging. Now I take care to stop and towel the sides of my face. I know my resting places. I know routes that have the kindest climbs and the best descents. For several weekends now I’ve cycled over to Dukades – about 5 kilometres – well prepared, enjoying the draught of my pace. Stopping now and then in shade; walking the last 100 metres up to the platea to rest the bike and myself and sip chill white wine at a table on the dappled plaka of the village square with John and Karen. Later they drive to their house below Ano Korakiana. I follow, cycling down the steep hill south from Dukades onto the Paleo road before turning left onto the country lane that leads through meadows, fences, high hedges, olive groves and vineyards back to Skripero. On the main Corfu-Sidari road I cycle gently down hill to the gravel track that leads to my friends’ home, on a rise among trees with views towards the village a mile away and the mountains above.
A barbecue will be starting. We sit where the shade is best, near the garden’s lower fence, against a grazing where the neighbour keeps sheep and goats. Their bells ring as they wander on their tethers. Now and then a ewe or nanny goat baas in protest as their growing young resist weaning, burrowing at their parents’ udders with wagging tails. Yianni’s a farmer. The village mayor has made an arrangement by which on Friday and Monday evenings Yianni and his wife will pass through the village driving his ‘Mad Max’ pick-up collecting bagged waste from named villagers - we’re on the list - who, being without cars, cannot take their household waste to the designated line of wheelie bins a mile from Democracy Street.
With the spreading aroma of meat on the BBQ, Mark arrives, from working. This Sunday there was another guest - his craft, once electronics - a neighbour from Flanders, who has entertaining prejudices against digitisation. He has, at home, a collection of old working radios. He believes in the recovery of analogue; the grander quality of music on vinyl and pictures on celluloid. He has a low opinion of Walloons - views delivered with a wry disarming smile. I wish we could pore over a larger map of the Low Countries, exploring pre-Belgian boundaries and adjoining nations, to extract in detail the topography of Jos’ discriminations; perhaps even down to villages. There are intellectuals who call this psycho-geography. What can you sense on a vinyl LP of Mozart, Leonard Cohen, Fauré or Freddie Mercury that you cannot on an ipod? What imprints itself in light on celluloid that doesn't on a digital camera? What's Jos' beef with Walloons? The anthropologist in me warms to understanding tribalism and the impulse to prejudice – in myself as much as in others - and isn't this encouraged; even stimulated post-analogue
NYRB 5th April 2018 Beware the Big Five

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Simon Baddeley